Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Great Escape

My husband and I have a tradition: on Christmas day we go to the movies. This tradition is a preemptive gesture, a way to escape the anxiety that so often accompanies that Pavlovian phenomenon of crowding relatives into a room adorned with lights and red felt, the aroma of fresh pine boughs making us grin and blurt an impersonal “Merry Christmas” to siblings with whom we once shared a bathtub and pooped in. The surrealism is too much, honestly. Escape is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

This year we saw “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows,” a dizzying, Guy Ritchie-masculine superhero revision that employs slow-motion previews of Holmes’ fight strategies. He thinks through his moves and then perfectly executes them moments later, vanquishing his attackers. Oh, how that device resonated, imagining an action before my body attempts it. My mental previews mostly involve grabbing a bottle of prune juice from the refrigerator without dropping it. Slashing and gutting a Cossack, not so much, but the Girl Scout in me knows it’s always a good idea to be prepared. Downey's Holmes has a mind I ache for, reflexes I would kill for. His precision and reasoning are so hyper-attuned, they hobble him socially. I wish I had that problem.

My husband loves action films. I think they bring back his youth, a time when men push the limits of their endurance and strength. I enjoyed it, but my thoughts went back to a Christmas film I saw in 2009.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is a Multiple Sclerosis patient’s greatest escape fantasy. I sat through it in tears, peering through 3-D glasses, sobbing about a thing that I’m convinced was lost on every other person in that theater: A paraplegic main character who temporarily, then permanently, escapes his broken body.

This point was not lost on James Cameron. I once heard him interviewed, and in the middle of that perfunctory press junket he suddenly blurted that he was surprised no one had mentioned the significance of having a disabled lead character. The interviewer did not respond to this, as though Cameron had suddenly lapsed into Russian. She waited a beat for him to finish his thought and then fall silent so she could pull him back to the special effects again, the problem of having to invent a new camera to shoot this kind of film. I saw a shadow of confusion, perhaps disappointment, on Cameron’s face as he relented and dutifully answered these questions. After that, I tried to watch every interview he gave during the film’s promotion, hoping that other interview would materialize, the one where he is encouraged to speak more about this character, about the disability angle. I never found one.

A disabled lead character is not new in Hollywood movies. Jon Voight in “Coming Home,” Tom Cruise in “Born on the Fourth of July,” it’s been done before. But not like this. These are stories about wounded war vets, their grief and anger and troubles assimilating back into an apathetic culture. They become activists/advocates and find love again. But they do not escape their bodies. These are stories of acceptance and consciousness-raising. The able-bodied audience feels good, relieved, in fact, about the endings of these stories. The wheelchair guy isn’t going to be miserable forever, he pulled himself up by his wheel spokes and got a girl.

The ending of “Avatar” makes the disabled audience feel good. Sully chooses life as a Na’vi avatar over one he already knows so well. His activism, his altruistic dedication to preserving a culture and its environment is a feature I consider to be a subplot to gratify able people. Somehow, it isn’t enough for him to choose life as an avatar just because it would make him happier. In the Hollywood mainstream storytelling ethos, cripples are too damn selfish if all they want out of life is a perfectly functioning body. They must also save the world, somebody’s world, it doesn’t matter whose, just so it isn’t all about self-gratification. An able-bodied moviegoer’s ultimate escape fantasy is all about the salvation of the world. They want somebody to fix it so they don’t have to. The disabled person just wants to walk again. But we cripples do have an advantage. We remember the time when we walked away after seeing a movie (without limping) and felt gratified by mere world redemption. I can't expect an able person to empathize with the mere act of breaking free from a shredded nervous system.

The most memorable part of “Avatar” occurred much sooner in the film. The first time Jake Sully enters his avatar body, he tries out his legs, quivering and falling like a newborn fawn. He crashes outside, walks, then runs. I am right with him, inside that body, feeling the joy. When he awakes in the pod and sits up, realizing his legs are once again useless, his reaction is spot on and my tears flow anew. It is an understated reaction, a quick glance at his legs and a subtle look that passes across his face. Only a disabled person would know how accurate, how convincing this is. I still wonder about the discussions Cameron and Worthington had about how to play this scene. They knew, I keep thinking, how did they know? It would have been so easy to lapse into sentimentality, overplay the grief and anger of having wakened from a dream in which the body has no affliction. I’ve had such dreams and awakenings; Sully’s reaction matched my own, nuance for nuance.

When I watch Robert Downey, Jr. move like a bionic Victorian comic book hero, when I thrill at Sam Worthington’s journey out of disability, I suppose one could say that Bobbie and Sam function as my avatars. For two hours, through them, I have been whole again.


  1. I have not seen Avatar, but your words give me a good understanding of this character. There isn't much these days that makes me emotional, perhaps it's pseubulbular effect, except similar images that you lay out here. Each time I see my MS Swim friends out of their wheelchairs and walking (a loose interpretation of that act applies)in the pool, it gives me chills and great joy. I think to be whole must be the fantasy of everyone with MS no matter what form their disability takes.

  2. What a great way of escaping, as you say. I enjoyed your point of view about the movie-am looking forward to reading more of your articles. Great job...

  3. Thanks for writing this post Kim. I had a similar experience and not just the movies on xmas one. I spend a lot of time fighting off the envy found as I'm watching those effortlessly glide across the screen unencumbered by this renegade immune system. I even have a go to sentence to help me through such moments. (my life is rich in spite of the lack of curtain calls- or something like that) But it's an envy of a different color (say blue for this particular reference) to watch my individual fantasy projected twenty feet high in front of an audience that just doesn't get it.

    And while my fantasies now play to a specific image accompanied by a similar soundtrack - I find a way to use that same sentence to soothe myself back to reality. It doesn't always work- but what does work is reading essays like yours. It's only then that I can find my seat in a more informed audience- and feel comfort in that crowd.

    Thanks Kim!
    Amy G.

  4. What a great entry, thank you, Kim! I have seen Avatar a few times and it's amazing to me that neither my husband (with a disability related to walking) and I (with MS) did not even stop to think about Sully as being a disabled lead character. I suppose it's because we saw less of him in a wheelchair than as a Na'vi. This post brought a new perspective of this movie to me. For that, I thank you. Looking forward to reading more :)
    xo Ammu